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Discover Hidden Treasures in Downtown Honolulu and Chinatown
History, Art and Cuisine
Hawaii is a place of incredible natural beauty. Beaches with long stretches of white sand, tropical flowers in bloom everywhere and amazing sunsets await the visitor. But Hawaii is more than just natural beauty. Honolulu has so much more to offer than just beaches. In fact, it'd be hard just trying to fit everything into a week-long holiday.
One of my favorite things about where I grew up, is the urban area of Honolulu, and within the city lies downtown, which sits between the historical district and colorful Chinatown. The area is definitely worth exploring especially if you're into art, exotic sights and great food.In fact, if you're a foodie like me, some of the best and most exciting restaurants can be found in this area.
I spent an entire day, combing the streets of downtown Honolulu. I invite you to come along with me to see just how exciting urban Honolulu can be.
*Photos taken by myself unless otherwise noted.
A Quick Question
Have you ever visited Honolulu before?
The Historic District and Hawaii State Art Museum
The eastern part of downtown is where the historical buildings such as Iolani Palace ( the only royal palace in the United States ), and the State Capitol can be found along with many other buildings that date back to the time of the Hawaiian monarchy. A walk through this area is like strolling back through time. Although the royal palaces remain, they are now used as offices for government purposes. One building that can be toured is the Iolani Palace, which has been beautifully preserved. Just make sure to make reservations before going.
The great thing about visiting a place again, is the discovery of something new. On this certain trip, I was pleasantly surprised to find a museum that I never knew existed. Located inside the historic Spanish-Mission style structure built in 1928, the Hawaii State Art Museum is a treat for art lovers. Dedicated to the art and culture of Hawaii, the museum showcases a variety of artwork by many local, as well as international artists. Another surprising fact is that the museum can be enjoyed free of charge.
The Capitol District and MuseumClick thumbnail to view full-size
Your Best Tour Guide
This full-color guide shows you the best beaches, sights and off-the-beaten-track places to visit on Oahu. I have this guidebook myself and I can vouch for this one. The restaurant section recommends a lot of my favorites.
Honolulu's Financial District
The sight of the skyscrapers in downtown reminds one that Honolulu is indeed, an urban city. However downtown Honolulu is small compared to other cities but the manageable size makes it easy to see everything in less than a day.
At first glance, this place seems nothing more than a concrete jungle but a closer look reveals some of the oldest and most architecturally interesting buildings on the island. In fact, many are declared national historic landmarks on the National Register of Historic Places. Taking some time to stroll through this concrete jungle will reward you with a look into the locals going about in their daily lives.
Fort Street Mall is one of the oldest streets in Honolulu and is located smack in the middle of the financial district. In the 1950's, it hosted several of the largest department stores in Hawaii such as Kress, Liberty House and Woolworth's. However with the opening of the gigantic Ala Moana Shopping Center in 1959, most of the retail businesses started to relocate.
Today, Fort Street Mall has been transformed into a pedestrian mall with an small but interesting open market that's open from Tuesday through Friday from 7:00 AM to 1:30 PM. This is a good opportunity to sample many offerings from local purveyors such as Hawaiian mochi ( rice cakes ), artisan breads and fresh cut flowers.
Many cafes, delis and restaurants can be found here, mostly catering to the weekday work crowds, but the selections are as diverse as the different cultures that make up Hawaii.
A Stroll Through the Financial DistrictClick thumbnail to view full-size
Honolulu Town - Images of America
A book that quickly takes you through the history of Honolulu. I found this one at a bookstore on my visit and glad I found it as it brought back memories of times past.
Exotic, Colorful and Artsy Chinatown
By far, my favorite part of downtown Honolulu is colorful and exotic Chinatown. With every visit to this enclave of cultures, I discover something new. Chinatown has changed so much since I was a kid but that's a good thing. Back in the 80's, I remember it being a dangerous place, one that you wouldn't want to step into after dark. It was a place full of drug dealers, prostitutes and gangs.
Today, a revival is taking place. A new wave of culture and arts in Chinatown began a few years ago with the restoration of the beautiful Hawaii Theater. Art galleries, specialty shops and trendy restaurants have opened for business with monthly block parties, parades and celebrations being held on the streets. First Friday is definitely something you don't want to miss.
If you're a foodie like me, you'll definitely want to visit some of the exciting new restaurants here. Whether you're in the mood for dim sum and Hong Kong style noodles, or want to chow down on some Cuban cuisine, it's all here in Chinatown.
A Whirlwind Tour of ChinatownClick thumbnail to view full-size
A Place with History and Charm
When the sun sets on downtown, things start to get awfully quiet. Business workers get ready to go home and stores close for the day. In fact, it's best to go on a weekday if you're visiting this area, unless it happens to be First Friday. But if you find yourself in downtown around dinnertime, you're in luck because some of the most exciting restaurants can be found in this part of town.
On this day, we decided on trying Soul de Cuba, which has been getting rave reviews since opening. Since my friend and I were both new to Cuban cuisines, we gave it a try and we weren't disappointed. This meal became one of the highlights of our trip and I am already craving the dish I had.
During the day, I made sure to try out at least one of the new cupcakeries in town. Unfortunately, my cupcakes were completely destroyed upon opening the box. Sigh. Cupcakes can wait until my next trip.
We also did some pretty random things in downtown. We visited some funky stores that sold designer knock-offs and jade jewelry, watched Chinese men playing mah-jong near the river, and walked past a few storefronts that used to be thriving businesses. Things change with time, and although remnants of the past are being cleared away for new development, many old buildings are lovingly preserved. I hope these reminders of the past remain as they are part of the charm of this unique neighborhood.
As it was the holiday season, we ended our tour with stroll through the Historic District as the buildings were all decked out in holiday cheer - Hawaiian style naturally!